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Review: Walter Starkie, Raggle Taggle September 19, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

When Beach first picked up Walter Starkie’s Raggle-Taggle: Adentures with a Fiddle in Hungary and Roumania (1947) he was looking for a reference to fairies. The book was to be a literary one night stand: 300 closely printed sides, ten minutes of flicking. But already in ‘the Preface to New Edition’ a more serious relationship was developing: ‘Last spring (1947) when I was wandering aimlessly about the outskirts of Barcelona, I came across a camp of Gypsy coppersmiths. They belonged to the tribe of Cristo-jordi, many of whose members I had not met in my travels through Spain and Africa in former years.’ Gypsies, Africa, tribe… By the first chapter, the author, an Irish official in World War One is already making a ‘blood promise’ to go and visit the Gypsy lands of the east. And from there it is all violin chords, bad alcohol and shadows across the Danube and the Carpathians.

This is a travelogue then and recalls in some ways Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, that Mormon-clean description of a trip across Europe just before the last war. But here, instead of visits to castles and pointed chats with the locals there are mad dogs, vampires and women throwing off clothes to fiddle music in hotel rooms late at night. Beach knows that sex happened in the 1920s: at least he is almost sure that sex happened in the 1920s. And yet he is always a little shocked to read explicit descriptions in the spare prose of that decade.

‘Anna then said: ‘I shall dance for you.’ She started to undress with rapidity. Her blue and yellow muslin frock, her petticoat and underclothes slipped off as though someone had pulled aside a curtain.’

The husband naturally appears at the downstairs door at this point and our hero – later director of the British Institute in Madrid and a UCLA professor – moves out onto the window ledge. George Borrows never had to suffer such  indignities…

As to the fairies they are in short supply. Beach came across a rumour* that Walter Starkie was a member of the Fairy Investigation Society, but he has been unable to find any proof other than a suggestive friendship with A.E. and Yeats. If any Walter Starkie fan is reading this and knows better then please get in touch: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

* unsubstantiated claim on wikipedia: the English language needs a word for this.